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In between paralyzing snow and rain storms, the huge annual CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference in D.C. once again came off with a familiar sameness, but several differences too. Here are some random observations: * The record turnout of 3,000-plus again strained the conference facilities of the Washington Hilton Hotel. For example, some exhibitors were relegated to an out of the way closet-like area adjacent to the main expo hall. Box lunches were again equal parts poor quality and confusion. And this year an added bottleneck was having to pass through security checkpoints upon entering the hotel. * As usual, virtually every general session speaker said how much he or she loves credit unions and supports them, including the need to maintain the always-under-attack credit union tax exemption. Whatever else they said mattered little. All were enthusiastically applauded. Not surprisingly, most general session speakers, including VIP politicians and presidential appointees, were known to be credit union friendly going in. As though scripted, no controversy. * Something different: President Bush made an appearance for the first time. He offered a personalized greeting to those in town for the annual CUNA event; via a brief, pre-recorded, audio-visual message direct from the White House. GAC delegates were duly impressed. This was only the second time a sitting U.S. President provided a special a-v greeting to a credit union conference. The first was done by President Jimmy Carter, a feat that was arranged back then by CUES Board member Dan Maslia, retired CEO of a Georgia credit union who obviously had Carter White House contacts. * As usual, all three NCUA Board Members had a turn at the ballroom lectern. Each delivered a warm and fuzzy message complimenting credit unions for their many past year successes and imploring them to provide feedback. The immensely popular Chairman, Dennis Dollar gave impressive industry stats in his trademarked enthusiastic and off-the-cuff delivery style. But he missed a golden opportunity to answer a question on the collective minds of the assembled CU masses, namely, what he hopes to accomplish before his term ends in April and he departs for who knows where. Vice Chair JoAnn Johnson also presented good stats before she laid out three very specific proposals that she felt would give a big boost to CU member business loans if enacted. They will be presented at the March 4th NCUA Board meeting and followed by a 60-day comment period. Board Member Deborah Matz told the group what she learned during her first year on the job. Among other things, she discovered that in her opinion credit unions needed to network more. To help them do just that, she unveiled her networking initiative called PALS (Partnering And Leadership Successes). Matz said the purpose of her PALS is to showcase credit union success stories. (To which I respond, is this really the business a federal regulator should be in?) * One general session held great promise for those of us anxious to hear “How credit unions are viewed on the Hill.” Unfortunately, two Congressmen and a top CUNA staffer apparently didn’t read the session title. The question was really never addressed seriously. Instead, the audience was presented with a session that should have been entitled, “How to lobby effectively.” Quote worth remembering by Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif): “When credit unions come to see me they talk about credit unions. When banks come to see me they talk about credit unions.” * Actually CUNA CEO Dan Mica did a better job of answering the “how viewed” question in his always-too-short opening remarks. He somberly warned the group that too many new politicians don’t understand the credit union difference. Citing the overnight gains to tax large CUs at the state level, Mica issued a strong call to action and challenged the audience to use all the tools at their disposal to defend credit unions before it is too late. It’s code red time for credit unions, he said, but I came away feeling no one really heard him. * Some things never change: There were a number of special presentations and the reining Miss America gave a stirring talk on behalf of Children’s Miracle Network. Cell phones were ringing constantly. One attendee seated near me received numerous obviously urgent messages. His group apparently did finally decide on a restaurant for that evening. At least two VIP speakers kept calling CUNA, “COONA” and several made constant references to how important the credit union difference is in serving “customers.” Typically, as the meeting wore on, attendance dropped dramatically with an embarrassing and noisy mass exodus after each speaker. At the general session on Tuesday morning, one panel member said he was addressing his remarks to the two people left in the room. Actually there were 159 by actual count surrounded by hundreds of empty chairs. Too many speakers? Sore posteriors? Many of the most pressing issues facing credit unions were either ignored or passed over lightly. And the opportunities for attendee feedback were scarce. As expected, controversy was again in short supply. One exception: Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation, Mary Louise Preis, pinch hitting for NASCUS Chair Jerrie Lattimore who was out of the country, used her brief allotted minutes to let the few attendees still in the ballroom know just how state regulators feel about alternative capital (for), private insurance (for), the overhead transfer percentage rate (against), and NCUA budgetary and staffing levels (against). Of course no time was allotted for audience feedback. * Like previous GACs, the 2003 version provided a golden opportunity to rub shoulders with the industry’s movers and shakers and to meet and greet old and new credit union friends from across the country. No speaker, no matter how important or knowledgeable, can come close to matching GAC networking. Parting thought: Keep your eye on Senator Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat and GAC speaker. He’s definitely future presidential material. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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